The Complexity of Guilt When You are a First Generation Graduate Student and Mom

After reading, my husband's piece on his guilt from familial obligations while pursuing his Ph.D., I was reminded of my own guilt. I have the guilt of not being able to help my mother out financially. Watching her struggle hurts me to my core because I can't do anything but lend an ear or offer to pay the phone bill. However, that is only one layer of my guilt. 

I suppose you could say that I decided to do life backward. I think most people plan on going off to school, graduating, then going off to start their families. Instead, I had my two girls before I sought my Bachelor’s degree. It was a struggle, and the stigma attached to being a single mom of color with two kids weighed heavily on me. 

Let's start at the beginning. 

As a teen, succeeding in school was a significant portion of my life. My father, a Haitian immigrant, always pushed me to get everything I can out of my education. I was in Advanced Placement (AP) prep classes from 6th-8th grade and moved on to AP classes all throughout high school. I applied to most of the University of California (UC) campuses and was accepted to most. However, despite all of my dad’s pressing to maximize my education in high school, he could not help pay for college. So, community college was my choice. I went to school for one day and never returned. Weighing community college against the financial help my family needed, I started working and making money, deciding I didn't need school. Working was more accessible, and a necessity. 

Then, at the age of 19, I discovered I was pregnant. I had my first child, and then three years later had my second. Now, I had two daughters to care for and suddenly the minor guilt I felt for being a young mom and not being able to provide everything my daughter could want, was multiplied. I knew I had to go back to school. Not only for myself but also to be an example with for my girls. 

I was lucky enough to be accepted to a school with a daycare on campus that also offered financial assistance. Every day I would get up, get dressed, dress and feed my girls, then drive to school. Once I dropped them off, I could go to class. 

Once I knew I wanted to go to graduate school, it became apparent that I needed to get into a great program that provided the financial support I needed. I needed childcare on campus, childcare stipend, a paycheck that allows me to feed myself and my kids and pay rent, and on-campus housing options for students with children. While still an undergraduate, I applied for a program that provided a monthly paycheck ($945) in exchange for doing research in a lab on campus. I knew that to be as competitive as my peers I had to not simply get good grades, but also engage in research and present at conferences. I joined a lab doing behavioral neuroscience research and spent time in between classes on weekdays and weekends working in the lab. I even went into the lab on Thanksgiving and Christmas. When my eldest graduated from preschool, I spent the day in a wild panic trying to finish experiments so I could run across campus to get there on time. I was 10 minutes late, and while I luckily didn't miss anything, I felt like the worst parent on the planet. Social life? When did I have time to socialize when I can barely make it to my own child's graduation? On weekends, when the girls were home, I wasn't, because I had to be in the lab. It broke my heart to see how heartbroken my babies were when I left. Every conference I attended, every late night in the lab was filled with guilt. 

I always heard that your college years are usually the best years of your life. You venture out into the world, make new exciting friends, go abroad (sometimes), and have the time of your life. What about when you are older than most in your class? How do I have the best time of my life when I have two little girls waiting for me? I was a full-time college student, full-time mom, and full-time researcher. I hardly had time to breathe. 

This all weighed on my mind, but I felt determined, with an end goal in sight. I love science. I'm good at it. By suffering for two more years until I graduate, I could get into a great grad program and then everything will be great. Sure, $945 was hardly enough to cover childcare, tuition, food, and rent but that's what school loans are for right? So long as they were offered, I would be taking on loans to help me get by. These weren’t the wisest financial choices, but they felt necessary. Still, by the time I got my bachelor's degree I was $50,000 in debt. 

All of this strife to get to grad school. Not just a grad school. A GOOD grad school that helps me succeed. 

Moving from California to the Midwest was my new hurdle.  I graduated with not just my Bachelor's degree, but also my debt and guilt of not being a present mother to my babies. I packed our entire lives into my small Toyota Corolla and had a friend drive it across the country for me while I flew with the girls. 

We moved into affordable on-campus housing devoted strictly to students with children. When I arrived, I had hardly any money. I could afford to buy beds for me and the girls and a dining room table and nothing else, living in a mostly, empty apartment for the first few months. I could barely afford to feed my girls. We ate A LOT of plain white rice and eggs that summer. 

As I watched my girls sit on the hardwood floor to play games or watch tv and complain about wanting snacks, the guilt got worse.  Was this what I had suffered for? To sit on a cold hardwood floor eating rice in an unfamiliar place, thousands of miles away from anyone we know. Just me and my girls against the world.

Then grad school started. My stipend started coming in every month. Finally, I could afford things again. But this money was in exchange for late nights in the lab, hours of studying to pass courses, and my mental health. I refused to let myself be an absent mom again. I made it a rule that I would pick my girls up every day and spend hours only focused on them. Once they are in bed, I can study until 4 am. Or I could go to the lab at 11 pm.

My girls have never faulted me for my long hours in school or studying. I occasionally had to take them to class or lab with me, and they were fascinated by the fact that "mommy was a scientist." It didn't matter. I felt guilty over every little "mistake": I forgot to make them lunch or pack their snacks, falling asleep during activities with them, getting fast food when I was too tired to cook, not being able to be a volunteer at their school or be a helper during field trips, etc. I felt like the worse mom on earth and was convinced that when they grew up, they would write a bestseller titled 'Why my mom sucked.' However,  I couldn't keep this insane schedule and still function as a human being. Something had to give. It was a lab. I just couldn't produce at the rate of the others in my lab. I choose my kids. If it takes me seven years to graduate, that’s fine. I have made my girls top priority, and will see my degree through. 

Of course, it sounds like my guilt problem should be solved now right? NOPE. 

No, because now I feel like a terrible student for not generating data as quickly as others or presenting at as many conferences as I can like my peers. If you look at my CV, which is the universal standard of measurement of your worth in academia, you’d think I didn’t care about science or grad school. Guilt can come from many sources. You think you get past one issue and here comes another. 

For me, guilt is a multi-layered issue. The guilt outlined by my husband in his article is one layer, the guilt I feel towards my children is another layer, and the guilt I feel towards my science career is yet another layer, but I refuse to give up no matter how many layers I carry. 

Student parents out there, do you feel guilty for going furthering your education?

How do you deal with the guilt?

What advice do you have for others in your situation?